The 7 Essential Elements of Design, Explained

When finding a new hobby it is important to constantly work on building and practicing your developing skill set, but sometimes it can feel intimidating to know where to begin.

All visual creatives––from fine artists to graphic designers––draw upon design principles to strengthen their artistic ability. There are fundamental principles of design that operate in tandem with concrete elements of visual design.

Seven of these essential elements of design are: line, color, shape, form, value, space, and texture.

Why Elements of Design Are Important

Understanding these elements will enable you to use them effectively in your creative work, and it will provide enormous benefits for your  artistic development and ongoing self improvement. Furthermore, learning these design basics will make your creative work come to life, helping to create an emotional connection between the viewer and your work. How you use these essential elements can be the difference between a piece of artwork that resonates with your viewers versus a piece of art that feels stale, lifeless, and is easily forgettable.

The seven essential elements of design are also fundamental for building your art vocabulary. Knowing these terms will provide a common language for you to discuss your artwork with others. Additionally, having a solid understanding of the essential elements can also help you objectively critique your own artwork. All seven elements must be considered when evaluating your work. The elements are interconnected, so strengthening your skills in one element will simultaneously help you to build skills in the other elements.

Here are the 7 essential elements of design, explained:

Element of Design: Line

A line is a visual stroke that moves through space. We can easily identify lines in many aspects of our daily life, such as the yellow painted lines on asphalt that mark the boundaries of parking spaces.

As an element of visual design, lines build shape and provide organization within a composition. Lines are expressed through many different forms and mark-making techniques; they may be continuous, broken, curved, thick, thin, etc. Variations in line type and mark-making techniques are used to communicate different mood states within a design.

Common Line Types Used in Drawing

While lines are a fundamental element in all forms of visual communication, they play a particularly critical role when you are using drawing mediums like graphite pencil, charcoal, or chalk pastels. Here are a few types of drawings that are created through different uses of line:

Contour drawings are often what first come to mind when we think about the use of line in drawing. As the name suggests, a contour line “outlines” the contours of a design’s central compositional forms, like this image:

A blind contour drawing is when you draw a continuous contour line without looking down at the drawing paper. While it may feel strange not to watch your hand while drawing, blind contour drawings help train the eye to see more accurately and work in tandem with your hand. Here’s an example:

Gesture drawings create lines in rapid strokes to depict action and movement. A gesture drawing captures the energy of a design’s central elements. It is not important that the finished drawing accurately depict the physical likeness of the subject.

Hatching/Cross-hatching is a line technique used to build texture and form. When an artist draws a series of parallel lines, it is referred to as hatching. Cross-hatching occurs when a second set of parallel lines angled in the opposition direction is laid over the first. Variations in the direction and density of hatch marks create changes in tonal value, which help in creating the illusion that the elements of a drawing have three-dimensional form. 

Element of Design: Color

Color is fundamental to establishing the mood and tone of a design. In fact, this visual element is so important that both artists and designers will devote themselves to the study of color theory. There are many properties to color. Color variations and the relationships between colors can affect the specific emotion that a design communicates to your viewer.

Using the Color Wheel to Understand Complementary and Analogous Colors

A color wheel (below) is a simple tool used by artists and designers to visualize relationships between colors. Imagine the six basic colors: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet arranged equidistantly around a circle. (One easy way to remember the six basic colors is with the acronym ROY G BIV). The arrangement of these colors creates a color wheel that can be used to help you see contrasting and complementary color combinations.

Complementary colors will appear opposite from each other on the color wheel (ie blue and orange). Complementary color combinations produce a high degree of contrast and will stand out to the viewer. 

In comparison, analogous colors are colors that are located next to one another on the color wheel (ie orange and yellow). Analogous color combinations are low contrast and can create harmony within a design. However, analogous color combinations often appear to blend together and can make it difficult for the eye to discern one color from another.

Understanding Color Variations

Tone: Colors are split into two basic tones: cool tones and warm tones. Colors with cool tones – like blue, green, and purple (below right) – are associated with nature, peace, and feelings of calmness. Colors with warm tones (Below left) – like red, yellow, and orange – tend to generate feelings of energy and power. Both white and black are considered to be neutral colors, meaning that they have neither a cool or warm tone.

Hue and Intensity: Hue refers to the overall color family that makes up an individual color. For example, red is the dominant hue for the color magenta. A color in its purest, most saturated form is said to have a pure hue. We can think of a pure hue as being the color that comes out of a tube of paint before it is mixed with other colors on the pallet.

Intensity refers to the degree of brightness within a color’s hue. The closer a color is to its pure hue, the greater the degree of intensity. High-intensity colors provide light and vibrancy to a design, but too much intensity can overwhelm a viewer. The intensity of a color can be dulled by mixing a complimentary color into the hue. 

Element of Design: Value

Value refers to the relative lightness or darkness of the central compositional elements in a design. The lightest value is white, and the lowest value is black. Between these two poles exists a full range of tonal values. Value helps provide the illusion of light and three-dimensional form within a design. Like color, value also plays an important role in communicating the mood and setting within the pictorial space. 

Tints, Tones, and Shades

Visual artists can create variations in tonal value by making tints and shades of color. When a specific color is mixed with white, it is referred to as a tint of the original color.

Image

Artists use tints to brighten their work and to make highlights––the areas in the composition where light is being cast on the subject. When an artist adds black to a hue of a specific color, the artist is darkening the color’s overall tonal value. This darker color is referred to as a shade of the original color. Shades are used by artists to depict shadows and areas of the composition that are blocked from light.

Element of Design: Shape

A shape is a two-dimensional self-contained form. Use of shape can help organize the composition of a design and guide a viewer towards its desired focal points.

Shapes symbolize ideas and can affect the mood and tone of a design. Four-sided geometric shapes, like rectangles, provide stability and order to a composition. Shapes with rounded edges like circles communicate ideas of wholeness and continuity. Shapes with a sharp point, such as triangles, move the direction of the eye toward a specific area.

Different Types of Shapes

Most of us learned long ago about common geometric shapes like circles and squares. While geometric shapes are highly symmetrical, shapes may also be asymmetrical, organic, or abstract. Organic shapes replicate shapes found in nature, such as the shape of a leaf or kangaroo. Abstract shapes symbolize abstract ideas and concepts. For example, the shape of a cross in red color is recognized almost universally as a symbol related to nursing and medicine.

Element of Design: Form

When a shape has three-dimensional depth, it is said to have form. Because the element of form deals with three-dimensional space, it plays a particularly important role in creative mediums like sculpture and architecture. Common geometric forms include cylinders and pyramids, such as the ancient pyramids of Egypt.

However, a form may also be asymmetrical, organic, or abstract. The Sydney Opera House in Australia is an example of a structure with asymmetrical form. Although technically form refers to the shape of three-dimensional objects, two-dimensional designs are said to take on form when they create the illusion of three-dimensional depth. 

Element of Design: Space

In art-making, the element of space refers to the space around and within the central objects of your composition. Space can be used to provide perspective, dimension, and form within an artwork. A two-dimensional design can give the illusion of three-dimensional space through the use of color, shape, and tone. When space has not been properly considered, the central compositional elements can appear to be flat, floating, or ungrounded.

Positive and Negative Space

When a space is occupied by an object or form it is said to have positive space. Conversely, negative space refers to the unoccupied space that exists between and around the main elements of the central object or form. For example, imagine that you are depicting a sunflower. In this instance, the negative space would be the space around the sunflower’s stem, leaves, and petals.

While easy to overlook, negative space is an important design element that provides organization and clarity to a composition. When negative space has not been properly considered, a design can lose its sense of depth and elements within the composition may feel cramped.

Element of Design: Texture

Texture refers to a design’s tactile quality or how the surface of an artwork feels or is perceived to be felt. A texture may be rough, smooth, hard, glossy, sandy, etc.

Physical Texture

Physical texture, also known as actual texture, refers to the texture of three-dimensional visual mediums such as fiber arts, ceramics, and sculpture.

A two-dimensional design that lacks physical texture can still have a visual texture through its perceived texture. A sense of texture is implied in two-dimensional artworks through manipulation of line, color, and form.

Visual Texture

Visual texture can also be created through the use of repetition and pattern. A pattern is a visual element repeated in a consistent arrangement throughout a design. Pattern texture is very appealing to the human eye and can be used to draw attention to your work. Texture can also be used to help convey the mood of a piece.

Using Elements of Design In Your Art Practice

Now that you understand these important art terms, it is necessary to consider their role in your own creative work. You can conduct a quick self assessment to determine if these seven essential design elements are being effectively utilized in your designs. Is your creative work transmitting the intended mood and message to your audience? Are you using the essential elements to give your design the  illusion of three-dimensional light and space?

One simple way to organize the essential elements within each of your designs is to develop a visual hierarchy. A visual hierarchy determines the compositional content that will have the most visual weight in your design. Visual hierarchy is communicated through the use of a number of design elements including size, color, space, and form.

Self-critique is an ongoing practice that will improve your work tremendously. In addition, taking one-on-one art lessons, with an art tutor will provide you with the outside perspective of a creative professional. An art tutor will give unbiased feedback about your artwork, pointing out your unique strengths as well as offering suggestions for improvement. This individualized attention will help you meet your creative goals and accelerate your artistic progress.

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